Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to head a federal cabinet agency, has ordered a landmark probe into the legacy of American Indian boarding schools, whose generations-long mission was to stamp out virtually any vestige of native culture in the students.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna who identifies as a 35th generation New Mexican, announced the investigation last month during a speech to the National Congress of American Indians. The final report is due on her desk by next April 1.
“The Interior Department will address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past,” Haaland told the virtual gathering, “no matter how hard it will be.”
For two centuries the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has been responsible for implementing federal laws and policies related to Native Americans. Early on, it approved the establishment of more than 350 boarding school sites in 30 states, which were typically run by various Christian denominations. From about 1823 to as late as the 1970s, Native children were removed from their homes, forced to renounce their tribal heritage, stop speaking their native languages and adopt white, Christianity customs.
Hundreds of thousands of families were affected, and by 1926, more than eight in 10 school-age Indian kids were attending these boarding schools, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, NPR reported.
Many Indigenous children never reunited with their families and lost their identities as they made their way through a world in which they felt neither fully Indian nor fully white. In school, no one taught them how to parent.
Today, the legacy of intergenerational trauma is believed to manifest itself in deeply rooted problems that often plague Indigenous communities, such as vastly disproportionate involvement in the foster care system, as well as substance use, incarceration and violence.
The probe will seek out school sites where students may have been buried without a trace, as well as trace the tribal affiliations of the children. In consultation with Tribal Nations, Alaska Native corporations and Native Hawaiian organizations, the researchers will dig through Interior Department records going all the way back to 1819.
Native American advocates applaud the moment of reckoning the investigative report is intended to bring about. But without follow-up funding and programming, the legacy of trauma will not heal, they say.